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Creator of 'Ne Boltai' Poster Speaks Out

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The image is one of the most famous and enduring ones to come out of the Soviet Union — a woman with burning eyes puts her finger to her lips and warns a nation at war to watch its words. Now, the one-time call for vigilance can be seen peering from newspaper and radio ads or adorning T-shirts.

And its author is not amused.

Nina Vatolina designed posters for 29 years under Soviet rule, but it was that one image — called "Ne Boltai," or "Don't Blab" — which "unexpectedly leapt out" from among the rest of her work and became famous.

Now, at 85, Vatolina is tired of seeing one of the few pieces of her work that she is proud of used without her permission, and has begun several legal battles to regain some control over her creation.

The image of the woman — a bright red scarf on her head, the words "Ne Boltai" and the initials N.V. underneath — was painted in the summer of 1941, just weeks after Adolf Hitler shocked the Soviet Union by violating the two countries' non-aggression pact and turning his Nazi troops against their erstwhile allies.

"The Germans were coming toward Moscow," said Vatolina. "Everything had just, just happened."

Vatolina, who was still an art student at the time, had her neighbor, whose two sons had gone off to the front, pose for her. But looking in the mirror, she drew her own intent eyes and face.

The poster became one of the most memorable graphic images of the war — comparable to the British wartime poster "Careless Talk Costs Lives."

The work is one of the few that Vatolina is proud of after a career spent producing government propaganda — a life of work she now considers a waste and a hindrance to her development as an artist.

"It was really bitter for me that I had to waste my potential on posters," said Vatolina, who retired as soon as she was able, in the early 1970s, and devoted her time to painting.

Vatolina began designing posters in 1941, while still a student. After her institute was evacuated late that year to Samarkand, in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, she violated war-time travel sanctions, returned to Moscow and began designing posters full-time to survive.

It became hard to escape the often profitable work, she says, and her painting — her real love — suffered for it.

Sitting in her apartment near Kievsky Station, surrounded by the paintings and portraits she has been working on in recent years, Vatolina recalled that she also disliked her work because of the subject matter — Soviet propaganda — and the constant pressure on official artists to produce ideologically acceptable work.

"When a poster belongs to politics," said Vatolina, "it makes the artist primitive, because he is not independent."

One of the posters Vatolina recalls with regret depicted a happy family returning to the Soviet Union; the work was part of a series designed after World War II to lure back those who had left the country. Many of those who took the bait were sent to labor camps as traitors.

"I don't like either posters or my 30 years of work," she said, staunchly resisting being photographed even with the "Ne Boltai" poster. When asked recently to exhibit her work, Vatolina said she would agree only on the condition that the ratio of posters to paintings would be 1:3.

The only exception she makes when criticizing her posters is the work she did on "innocent" subjects such as children, or that done in the first days of the war, when the Kremlin was still reeling from the shock of the invasion and hadn't yet tightened its control over artists.

"When the war began, it was so serious and affected each and every person," said Vatolina. "It stirred genuine feelings."

It was precisely these "genuine feelings," Vatolina said, that yielded "Ne Boltai" — so it especially pains her to see the image being reproduced for fatuous purposes.

"Now they use it all sorts of ways," she said, complaining about alterations sometimes made to the poster.

Now Vatolina has found a lawyer to help her defend her rights to the image. Last year she began by complaining to the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, which used a modified version of her poster as a logo for one of its sections. The paper ran an interview with the artist to let her voice her concerns.

More recently, she has managed to collect royalties from the downtown book store Dom Knigi, which sells the poster, although she declined to say how much.

Now Vatolina's lawyer is in talks with Serebryany Dozhd radio, which uses the image as an emblem on its own ad posters. Vatolina is most troubled by such reproductions because she fears they vulgarize her cherished work.

Asked about the poster, a spokesman for the radio station reached by phone Monday knew nothing of the talks and inquired: "Is that the one from World War II? … Or was it the Civil War?"

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